A closer look at Matt Kuchar's ceiling in 2019 after two early-season wins
With two early wins, how high can the 40-year-old rise?
As we did with Justin Thomas and Patton Kizzire before him, we should evaluate just what kind of season two-time PGA Tour winner in the 2018-19 season Matt Kuchar can have this year. Obviously Kuchar, who took the Mayakoba Golf Classic last fall and Sony Open last week, is off on the right foot (or two feet), and he knows it.
"I'm tickled, thrilled to have won two events this early in the year," said Kuchar after his big win at the Sony last weekend. "To have won two out of three starts on the PGA Tour is mind-boggling to me. Yeah, to set up the year, absolutely sets up the year to be in great position for the FedEx Cup. There is a lot of year left and a lot of great things that are out there to be done."
The last two Sony winners have also collected win No. 2 of the season at that tournament. Thomas won twice early in 2016-17 (including the Sony Open) and went on to take three more, including the 2017 PGA Championship for a total of five wins and PGA Tour Player of the Year honors.
Kizzire won twice early in 2017-18 (including the Sony Open) and barely made the Tour Championship. So where does Kuchar fall between those two ends of the spectrum?
Dating back to 2009, Kuchar has only finished outside the top 16 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained overall one time. That was last season when he didn't win and finished 52nd. He still nabbed four top-10 finishes, but he didn't truly threaten any trophy ceremonies. He had one top-five finish -- at the Sony Open -- but other than that he just collected some nice paychecks.
What's fascinating about this is that in three measured events so far this seaso,n Kuchar isn't even in the top 25 in strokes gained (the Mayakoba Golf Classic was not measured). So the big question for me is whether last year's 52nd-place finish in strokes gained is the new norm for somebody who's now four years old or whether it was an outlier year amid a crazy consistent string of top-10 and top-20 finishes in the strokes gained rankings.
If it's the former, then we will likely see some regression from Kuchar for the rest of the year. If it's the latter, then we may not have even seen his best stuff yet! It's also important to remember that not all strokes gained numbers are created equal. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Tony Finau and Rickie Fowler were all in the top 11 in strokes gained last season, and they combined for just two wins. So Kuchar could move up in that category and still not win anymore. In fact, that's what a lot of his career has looked like.
The other big question for me -- and probably for him -- revolves around winning a major championship. There's a feeling here that his one great shot at winning the big one came in 2017 at The Open when Jordan Spieth stomped on his soul down the stretch at Royal Birkdale. Your chances of winning majors don't normally increase as you hit 40 and beyond. But maybe Kuchar is different.
"It's not like you hit 40 and you have to go away," he said. "There are guys that have done great. Certainly I'm off to a way better start than I would've expected. Feels good. I hope to continue ..."
He has more top 10s at majors in the last two years (4) than he had in the previous four years (3), and he seems as jubilant and healthy as ever on the course. To go back to the original Thomas-to-Kizzire spectrum, if I'm betting on this, I think wagering on a 40-year-old who hadn't won in four years until last fall to win three times in a year ---- and score a major championship is a bit ambitious. But those strokes gained numbers are pretty fascinating.
Kuchar this season is almost performing the opposite way he's always performed. His strokes gained are not great but he's winning. It's always been the other way around with him. So who knows how it plays out the rest of the way, but given his recent contention at majors and this mini-run of the highest success, he's an intriguing outside candidate to break into the collection of 10 or 12 guys that control this sport (and its major championships) in 2019 and beyond.
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